In search of weapons for Ukraine, Pentagon buyers tour factories in Eastern Europe

IN POLAND, NEAR THE BORDER WITH UKRAINE — Just off a runway at a Polish airfield, forklift trucks busily emptied an Air Force C-17 transport jet of its cargo alongside a much smaller propeller-driven civil aircraft, hauling pallets of green crates filled with ammunition from each to a nearby asphalt parking lot filling up with many dozens of them.

Some carried American-made weapons, while others had a variety of Eastern European-made ordnance, all representative of Ukraine’s top priorities for military aid that would soon be loaded onto a fleet of tractor-trailers waiting loitering nearby. for the trip to Ukraine.

The Pentagon sources much of the US-made weaponry it sends to kyiv from its own stockpiles, but relies on US defense contractors to scour Eastern European munitions factories for newly manufactured weapons designed by the former US adversary. United, the Soviet Union, to fulfill President Biden’s promises to increase military aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine still uses many weapons common to the Russian military, such as modern Kalashnikovs. And while Ukraine’s pleas for more sophisticated weaponry, such as Javelin anti-tank and Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, have received widespread attention, the country’s armed forces have pressing needs for a wide range of ammunition, including tens of millions of rounds for weapons. from the Soviet era who are not at the forefront, but are basic elements of the Ukrainian army.

The Pentagon calls these weapons, including rockets, artillery shells, and ammunition for machine guns and assault rifles, “non-standard munitions,” since the munitions are incompatible with those used by the United States and many allied nations, which are generally referred to as NATO weapons. standard ammunition.

And since the 9/11 attacks, the Pentagon has been buying large quantities of such weapons through a variety of US defense firms to supply client militaries in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and other countries still dependent on Soviet-designed weapons.

One such company is Ultra Defense Corp. in Tampa, Florida, which has about 60 employees and has built a thriving business working with factories in Romania, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria.

Those countries provide about 90 percent of the non-standard munitions purchased by the Pentagon, according to Matthew Herring, the company’s owner, though his company provides only a fraction of the Pentagon’s total orders.

Mr. Herring, who bought the company in 2011 when it was a three-person company providing Russian-made helicopters to Afghan forces, is now in Poland meeting with Ukrainian officials to find out what more his company can do to provide them with helicopters from the Eastern Bloc. equipment.

“A month ago, when kyiv was circled, it was, ‘What do we need in the next 48 hours?’” Herring said. “But now the Ukrainians are preparing for a long fight and it’s, ‘How do we get enough to sustain us in this fight?'”

“So it’s a broader view of what they need right now,” he added.

The Pentagon’s non-standard munitions program was created in direct response to a 2008 investigation by The New York Times that exposed illegal sales of Chinese-made weapons to the US military in Afghanistan, which became the topic from the 2016 film “War Dogs.”

According to Herring, after that scandal, the Pentagon contracted with large defense companies to provide non-standard munitions for Afghanistan and then allowed smaller companies like his to bid for the same types of services.

Whether certain European nations that still make Soviet-designed ammunition will sell their products to Ukraine is a political decision, which may depend in part on whether they value maintaining a good relationship with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado, a former Army Ranger who serves on the House Intelligence and Armed Services Committees, said in an interview last week that much of Ukraine’s non-standard ammunition “will run out.” very quickly” due to the current pace of combat with Russia.

The Ukrainian military will eventually need to transition to NATO-standard weapons in the future, he said, in order to further tap into the West’s vast stockpiles of ammunition sitting in bunkers in Europe and the United States.

That move is already underway, in part, through the Pentagon’s provision of five battalions’ worth of 155mm howitzers to meet Ukraine’s pressing needs for what it calls long-range fires, which are similar in capability. to Soviet-designed 152mm howitzers. weapons that Ukraine has been using against Russia.

So while companies like Ultra Defense Corp. will continue to buy as many 152-millimeter artillery shells as they can for Ukraine’s legacy artillery weapons, the Pentagon is aggressively moving 184,000 shells from its stockpile in Europe for the 155-millimeter howitzers it has withdrawn. . from Army and Marine Corps stocks in the United States and shipped to kyiv.

At a news conference last week, John F. Kirby, the Pentagon’s press secretary, said non-standard munitions remained a significant part of the US arms supply to Ukraine.

“It is the lifeblood here for the Ukrainian armed forces,” Kirby said of ammunition supplies being delivered to kyiv. “We don’t talk much about small arms ammunition. It doesn’t make the headlines, I understand, but in every discussion we have with the Ukrainians, they talk about how important it is.”

Since the invasion, he said, the United States has coordinated and delivered more than 50 million small arms ammunition to Ukraine, much of it Soviet-designed. Kirby said the United States was continuing to “talk to allies and partners about their non-standard munitions inventories” in an effort to get more munitions to Ukraine.

“It’s having a really significant impact on the battlefield,” he said of the Soviet-designed artillery. “They use that ammunition literally every day to defend their country.”

John Ismay reported from an undisclosed location in Poland near the Ukrainian border and Eric Schmitt from washington

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